I had to raise my hand high in order to grasp the hand of my grandfather. I eased my way down the steps, placing the trailing foot on the same step as the leading foot before negotiating the next step in the same fashion. A few minutes earlier I had witnessed the huddle between my mother and my grandmother, the signal for the execution of a plan and it became clear that the plan was to have me accompany my grandfather on his mission. "It’s the pensioners' day," explained my grandmother, "and he needs a haircut". She was speaking of my grandfather rather than myself. He was already dressed and waiting, so my accompaniment was presumably an afterthought. Was this plan motivated by a desire to give me a spell of fresh air, for reasons ostensibly for my health? Perhaps to slow me down a little, so that I could "get out from under the feet" of my grandmother, as she could so testily express it, for a short time.

The idea of male bonding was of another era, in those days of strict disciplinarian parents and grandparents. Parents were to be obeyed, and compliance was enforced with a Victorian sense of moral purpose and rectitude, the rigid call to duty to the young, of a type which had made the Empire great, and would soon defeat the godless Adolf Hitler. My grandfather was born and raised in the Victorian age, and his reputation as a taskmaster had been reinforced by the quick compliance of the female members of our household to his imperious command, although I had never seen him strike anyone else, nor threaten to do so. Still my Auntie Hetty had not yet plucked up sufficient courage to own up to her smoking habit, or her occasional donning of lipstick before venturing forth with her friends to the cinema.

This apparent state of ignorance on my grandfather's part was maintained by the ladies in my family, I of course was a silent partner to this conspiracy. My mother, as a married woman, was now considered by my grandfather to be under the protection and management of her husband. Consequently, her smoking was tolerated, although she maintained an abstemious approach to alcohol, which my grandfather forbade without any apparent chink of leniency. She took my overcoat from the peg in the front hallway and wrapped it around me, pulling my hand through the sleeves and buttoning the front quickly. Then she pulled gloves onto my hands. My mother called to me from the front door, at the top of the steps, and I turned to wave good-bye with a flourish of the hand, she smiled.

I turned back to my journey. I knew from my previous experiences on walks to the park with my grandfather that I was expected to keep hold of his hand during most of this excursion. This was the rule when we walked along the street and, as was necessary to explain to me regularly when my exuberance got the better of me, it was for my own good. Traffic was dangerous and to run thoughtlessly into the road was to invite danger. Past the dairy we stepped, which was the equivalent of a convenience store in those days, then across the cobblestones of Tinsley Street we proceeded, then we took the right turn at the corner onto Walton Breck Road, our main artery to downtown Liverpool.

The walk from this point was much more interesting from my perspective, for there were shop windows for me to investigate along this route. From a speed perspective, we were not at all a mismatch, the little boy and the old man, although in most other respects we were a contrast. My grandfather was tall and gaunt, with a slight stoop of the shoulders, and he spoke with a habitual hoarseness, which pushed his voice into a slightly higher pitch as he aged. His uniformly grey hair was closely trimmed and hardly merited this trip to the barber. At one time, as I later discovered, he sported a moustache, waxed at the ends but in the time that I knew him he was always clean-shaven. His bony features were punctuated with a prominent nose, typical of the Stephenson strain of my family, his eyes carried an astigmatic look which I later came to recognise in my mother and my Aunty Hetty as they became older.

On the other side of the road I could see the fruit and vegetables of the greengrocer, where my mother presented her ration coupons along with the coins that were needed to complete her purchase. Dr. Levison's surgery was close by, which I knew well, for I had been treated for the tonsillitis that plagued me in my childhood, although I had not been there recently. We passed the tobacconist's shop where my mother and father bought their Woodbine cigarettes, my father preferring to pop in there on his way home from work. A tramcar came by in our direction bearing the sign of its destination, The Rotunda and its route number, 17, a small queue of people stepped forward to alight. The Rotunda no longer existed but derived its name from an old theatre which had been demolished years before. It happened to be located at a junction with Scotland Road, at the bottom of Sleepers Hill, a convenient placement for connections to North Liverpool and towns and cities beyond, as well as downtown in the reverse direction.

Onward we moved, past the row houses and the end of Blessington Road, where my mother sometimes bought stamps for her letters at the post-office. We let a No. 19 tram pass before crossing the road and descending the hill. At the Y junction of Sleepers Hill and Walton Hall Avenue, lower down the hill, across from the girls' convent school, and the Methodist church opposite, was the barber shop, with the tell-tale striped pole mounted over the entrance. I knew that my Uncle Bob and Aunty Harriet lived in Globe Street, the next street down the hill and the area was familiar to me from my periodic excursions there with my mother.

As we stepped inside the door, with the glassed upper half, the bell overhead rang. It was made of brass, and suspended from a spiral spring at the top of the door, so that the spring vibrated with the motion of the opening of the door and shook the bell. An elderly man in a grey button-down overall whose face was reflected in the facing mirror was stooped over a figure in one of the chairs and he turned and greeted my grandfather, whom he knew well as a regular client. The other barber's chair was vacant. There was another customer patiently waiting, sitting on a chair, still wearing his overcoat and cap. He too was elderly, as befitted this dark musty smelling place. Windows on two sides provided a modicum of light by day. A single gas lamp with two mantles hung from the ceiling as the sole source of illumination on late winter afternoons.

My grandfather took off his overcoat and hung it on a peg, and then removed mine, which he hung on top of his own. We sat down to watch the proceedings. The barber wielded the mechanical clippers slowly and carefully as he negotiated the pate of his charge. Then the scissors snipped away at his top skull until he was cropped close. On the wall hung a sign, I started to spell out the letters, as my mother had taught me, in sequence. I pronounced the letters phonetically rather than by name and when I reached the end I would try to pronounce the word. My grandfather helped me struggle with the words, which I came to realise was a list of services and their corresponding charge. "Haircut" and "Shaving" were dispensed with first, and we tackled the lower list of services next. "Ssshhhh-aaaaa-mmmm-pppp" I started in. My grandfather joined in and we completed the word. "What's a shampoo, Grandad?" I queried. My grandfather walked me through my bath routine and explained that when my mother washed my hair, I was receiving a kind of shampoo. This new word was carefully filed away for future reference.

The next word was equally unfamiliar, and I hesitated as I worked my way through the phonetics. "Sssss-iiii-nnn-ggg". I was corrected by my grandfather "It sounds like jjjjj, not gggg." "Why?" I asked, "Because it is followed by a letter E and that turns the sound into a jjjjjj." On we continued until we reached the end. "That’s like singing, Grandad, but its singeing. What's singeing?" My grandfather paused. "You'll see in a few minutes" he rejoined. I sat looking at books with pictures for a few minutes, until, out of the corner of my eye, I observed a change in the activity. The barber moved into the corner where he picked up a long waxed taper, of a kind that we used at home to light the gas lamps. He struck his Swan Vestas match and held it to the end of the taper, which he then held to the gas mantle. The wick caught alight after a second or two. He shielded the flame with his cupped hand as he approached the immobile elderly man in the chair. I watched, fascinated, as he held the end of the taper to the end of the customer's moustache, the hair sizzled slightly.

The procedure was repeated on the other side of the customer's lip. This was quite a shock, for I never imagined actually setting out to burn somebody like that, even though the victim did not cry out with pain. It seemed a miracle to me that he did not burst into flames, but I looked hard and could see no permanent visible effects. My grandfather was looking at me intently, I caught his eye and looked away. I thought that I caught a humorous smile for a fleeting moment. When we arrived home I was hungry and tired. My mother came up the stairs to greet us as my grandfather and I walked through the front door. She seemed to want to know about our haircut trip, so I told her all about singeing and shampooing and how the barber had put the lighted taper to the customer's moustache. I assured her that the man was alright afterwards. He had walked out right before grandad's haircut. "Come and have some orange juice”. Said my mother.






This story was added on 22nd September 2010

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